Archive for October 28th, 2009

Relativism: A “flawed philosophy”

October 28, 2009

Just spotted this from Friday’s Times. Antonia Senior writes:

It’s impossible to be a cultural relativist when faced with daily examples of other cultures getting it wrong. There is no validity in any view of right or wrong expressed by the Taleban. There is no truth in any cultural creed that treats women as inferior, let alone those that mutilate them. There is no cultural excuse for child abuse disguised as exorcism.

Relativism is in retreat, but there is no coherent moral framework taking its place. It helped us move from the certainties of the imperial age into a more tolerant era, but it’s almost impossible to work out what comes next.

I’m in complete agreement that moral relativism is both a) flawed and b) responsible for stifling public debate over moral questions by privatising them. Relativism is, if not ubiquitous, still extremely common as a position among university students and the middle class. But what do we put in place of it? Ms Senior suggests that on (her) atheist presuppositions it’s actually quite hard to test moral propositions and decide what’s right and wrong. She’s on to something here – moral and ethical debate is completely shaped by our wider philosophical and theological presuppositions. Relativism perhaps represents the best of the failed attempts to get around this fact and allow holders of incompatible theologies to share a morality. The fact is that moral truth-claims really hang upon theological truth-claims and any attempt to discuss morality needs to recognise this. Does this mean that morality is even more radically privatised? Not necessarily – rather it means that we must allow the theological dimension to moral discussion to be mentioned (and examined) in public moral debate, and not written off from the start as irrelevant.